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Handmade for Television: Finding Resonance in Hulu’s Dystopic Drama

By Ashley Duong

Hulu’s newest original series, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” takes on the task of converting Margaret Atwood’s quiet dystopian novel into a drama-filled television show that eerily echoes the current world of politics. Similar to the way the novel made waves within the feminist movement during the conservative Reagan presidency after its publication in 1985, the television series sends an ardent message about the dangers of complacency in the face of the potentially dangerous ideologies of the new administration our country is transitioning into now.

Following protagonist Offred, readers are taken into the life of a woman who has essentially become a sex slave under Gilead, a strict military regime that has taken over the United States.

Due to a dangerously low birth rate, Gilead develops a system in which they enslave fertile women and pander them out to powerful men within the regime to help sustain the human race. Under the new system, women are reduced to three main categories: Marthas, servants who cook and clean for the powerful; Handmaids, who are seen as valuable only in their ability to reproduce; and wives, who are the heads of domestic duties and in charge of the household.

Under the constant gaze of The Eye, a dragnet meant to keep people on their toes in fear, the hyper-controlled and rigid society leaves little room for any sort of individual expression. Uniformity and compliance to an outdated script based on archaic biblical passages rules above all else.

Atwood’s beloved masterpiece dives into feminism, necropolitics, totalitarianism and a host of heady concepts that show how the utopia she created is a strawman warning for what could be. In an interview given closely after the publication of the book, Atwood was quoted having said, “I created nothing.” Meaning it both figuratively and literally, Atwood was making a play on the utopian genre. The word “utopia,” directly translated from Latin, means “no place,” as in no place that could ever exist. However she also divulged that “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was completely inspired by events that were happening around the world at the time. In essence, her novel was less of a far-away dystopia and more of a prophetic chronicling of what society was already slowly becoming.

Hulu’s attempt to bring Atwood’s complex world off the page came with distinct decisions made by creator and writer Bruce Miller as well as Atwood herself. The television show includes details about the sexualities and personalities of characters that diverge from the book, making it incredibly relevant and much more overtly political.

Perhaps the most jarring divergence is in the main character. Within the novel, Offred remains a more passive figure, focused on narrating the events of her life to readers. Atwood’s clever word-play and use of inner monologue (diary style) makes Offred’s intelligence undeniable. However, Offred’s unassertive and almost docile nature makes her an unlikely protagonist. In the same way that Hamlet fails to kill his uncle, Offred’s inaction puts her in the backseat of her own life, a move meant to show the extent of her powerlessness within the system.

But while Atwood needed only the power of her words to keep readers enticed in a novel where the main character accomplishes very little, the television series had to face the challenge of keeping viewers hooked onto the 10-episode season.

While the television series attempts to keep in line with the style of the novel through multiple voiceovers per episode and artful camerawork, ultimately TV Offred (Elisabeth Moss) has much more fight in her than is ever presented within the book.

This pattern of enhanced and stronger female characters is heavily present within the series, sending a powerful feminist message to viewers. Multiple instances of women taking charge, even in subservient positions, give women power when it seems there is none to be had.

Furthermore, Gilead as it exists within the novel is an incredibly emotionally and sexually repressed environment. All forms of intimacy are regulated and can even be considered dangerous. Any sexuality that is expressed is either clinical and impersonal or instigated only by men. The television series again flips the script on this by featuring lesbian characters as well as depicting erotic scenes in which women are in control of their own pleasure. Perhaps more for entertainment value than anything else, the sexual endeavors and encounters between characters are also generally much more prevalent within the show.

Still, even with small doses of rebellion and feminist characters, the series is a harrowing depiction of the potential outcome of our society. Scenes of protests, similar to those currently taking place across the country, are shown shut down by the military shooting into a crowd, with little thought to the loss of civilian life. Ideologies based on outdated gender-roles, echoed by various political leaders today, are the extremes on which Gilead is based. The fundamental basis of the regime shows religion intimately intertwined with politics, again a reality not far from our own, where congressmen constantly preach god-driven legislation and misuse scripture as justification.

If Atwood created nothing, then the television series too is simply an intensified version of our current reality, a look into a dark but possible future. Taking the structure of Atwood’s dystopia and morphing the details to reflect challenges and ideologies more prevalent to 2017, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is a show that should leave viewers with a sense of dread and a spirit of revolution.

With a second season recently signed on by Hulu, the show has already developed a loyal following. Fans have taken to dressing up as characters in protest of legislative initiatives. If there were any concerns about people getting fatigued by current politics, the show has definitely helped to reignite motivation. While it’s incorrect to conflate our current reality to that of Gilead, the show sends a poignant warning by depicting how easily the seeds of a totalitarian regime can take hold and eventually take over a country like ours.